The Great Escape

neil rackers - arizona cardinals
Arizona kicker Neil Rackers is disgusted after missing a 55-yard field goal with two seconds left that would have handed the Cardinals an improbable victory. (Ricky Carioti - The Post) (Ricky Carioti - The Post)
By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 22, 2007

As Neil Rackers lined up for a game-winning field goal attempt yesterday, the prevailing thought of some of the Washington Redskins was not whether Arizona's place kicker would succeed, but how this circumstance had even come to be. Another second-half lead had wilted, with Washington's offense undermining another strong defensive effort, and three hours of work was reduced to the trajectory of Rackers's 55-yard kick with seven seconds left.

It sailed slightly wide of the left upright, and the Redskins survived the Cardinals' wild fourth-quarter pursuit, 21-19, at FedEx Field, despite giving up 13 unanswered points. Still, the team is 4-2, a mark that inspired joy in Coach Joe Gibbs after a game that mystified others.

"I enjoy every single win, I don't really care how it comes or how we get it," Gibbs said. "I am thrilled with this one."

The imbalance between Washington's defense and offense has been startling for much of Gibbs's second stint as Redskins coach, perhaps never more so than yesterday. The defense essentially created almost every scoring opportunity against Arizona (3-4) -- stuffing the Cardinals for three quarters, setting up the first touchdown with a long interception return and then giving Washington a 14-0 lead on linebacker London Fletcher's 27-yard interception return for a touchdown. The offense botched numerous opportunities (Rock Cartwright's 80-yard kick return was for naught after a missed field goal) and staggered with three starting linemen (center Casey Rabach, guard Randy Thomas and tackle Jon Jansen) injured.

The Redskins were outgained 364 net yards to 160; quarterback Jason Campbell managed just 95 yards passing and former Pro Bowl tailback Clinton Portis continued to sputter (43 yards on 18 attempts). Washington's running game averaged only 2.6 yards per carry; the Redskins have averaged 3.3 yards per carry the past five games. Thus a 21-6 third-quarter lead nearly evaporated, eliciting flashbacks to recent losses to the New York Giants and Green Bay.

"We've got to learn to keep going after we get ahead," defensive end Phillip Daniels said. "I'm happy for the win, but I'm not happy with the way we finished."

Washington produced a total of 82 net yards in the first half, while the defense amassed 75 yards on interception returns alone. Safety Sean Taylor -- who has interceptions in four straight games and five this season -- set up the first score by collecting another while nestled in Washington's deep zone defense.

The Redskins took over at the Arizona 25 and Portis scored on a two-yard run. The drive was prolonged by a third-down personal foul by the Cardinals. Warner, playing with a bulky brace after tearing ligaments in his non-throwing elbow last week, was intercepted again midway through the second quarter. "I basically spotted them 14 points," the former NFL MVP said.

Gregg Williams, Washington's assistant head coach-defense, shunned the blitz for a third straight game, and on a second-and-long play in the second quarter rushed just three linemen, dropping end Demetric Evans and linebackers into coverage. Fletcher rumbled for the score, with Evans and cornerback Shawn Springs blocking Warner near the pylon.

"It was a good call, because I dropped right in the middle of the zone where Warner was trying to get the ball to [wide receiver Anquan] Boldin," Evans said. "He overthrew the ball and London caught the pick and I just escorted him to the end zone."

Fletcher and Springs made excellent tackles in succession on third and fourth down on Arizona's next drive to force a change of possession, but the offense again failed to capitalize. Campbell's pass was tipped and intercepted to open the ensuing drive; Arizona took over at the Washington 23. Warner found Boldin in the back of the end zone on fourth down from the 2-yard line, but the snap on the extra point was botched and defensive tackle Kedric Golston blocked it, making the score 14-6 at the half.

The Redskins scored late in the third quarter on a 59-yard march, the only significant drive by the offense, again with Portis navigating across the goal line from the 1. They had as many first downs on that drive -- five -- as they did in the rest of the game combined. None of Washington's other second-half drives took more than 2 minutes 28 seconds, or lasted more than four plays. The Redskins had three three-and-outs in the fourth quarter, gaining 17 total yards.

"Our defense is always going to give us a chance," Portis said. "But as an offense we have to go out and put up points."

After Portis's second touchdown, 20:47 remained; the Cardinals held the ball for 15:42 of that span and had 191 net yards in the fourth quarter.

The Redskins had them stopped twice on third down on the ensuing drive after going up by 15 points, but on the first play rookie safety LaRon Landry was penalized 15 yards for a late hit on an incomplete pass, which he disputed. "I thought [wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald] caught the ball, and I was just trying to tag him out," Landry said.

Fletcher made another crushing tackle to stall the drive outside the 20-yard line, but was penalized for taunting Arizona's sideline after the play. Fletcher said he was intending the antics only for the fans. "It shouldn't have been a penalty," Fletcher said.

Warner found Boldin deep in the end zone on third down from the 10 on another improvised play to complete the drive, then utilized a bevy of screens and short passes to move 70 yards on eight plays, with backup quarterback Tim Rattay tossing a one-yard pass to Leonard Pope to make it 21-19.

Ken Whisenhunt, a former Redskin who is the Cardinals' coach, called a direct snap to Boldin for the two-point conversion. As he rolled closer to the right sideline, Landry knew Boldin "had nowhere to go, he was going to throw the ball back," he said, and when the pass came Landry caught it. Undaunted, the Cardinals recovered an onside kick with 20 seconds to play and moved 22 yards to set up Rackers, whose kick set sail for the center of the goal post, then curled wide of the upright.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company